Human Dignity and Freedom of the Press
Sep 11, 2008
9th Gerd Bucerius Lecture at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, Washington DC | Speaker: Jutta Limbach (Former Chief Judge, German Supreme Court and former President of the Goethe-Institut)
Jutta Limbach will deliver the ninth Gerd Bucerius Lecture of the German Historical Institute. She will speak on the topic "Human Dignity and Freedom of the Press." The Gerd Bucerius Lecture series is sponsored by the ZEIT Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius. Professor of civil law at the Free University in Berlin since 1972, Jutta Limbach was Senatorin für Justiz (state attorney general) for Berlin from 1989 to 1994. In 1994 she was appointed to the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Germany’s supreme court), where she served as chief justice until her retirement in 2002. From 2002 to 2008 she was the President of the Goethe Institut.
On September 11, 2008, Jutta Limbach delivered the GHI’s ninth Gerd Bucerius Lecture to an audience of about 250 listeners at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington DC. After introductions by Hartmut Berghoff, GHI Director, and Markus Baumanns, Executive Vice President of the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, which sponsors the Bucerius Lecture Series, Limbach spoke on "Human Dignity and Freedom of the Press," a topic that allowed her to draw on her rich legal expertise. Professor of civil law at the Free University in Berlin since 1972, Limbach served as Berlin's state attorney general (Senatorin für Justiz) from 1989 to 1994. In 1994 she was appointed to the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Germany's supreme constitutional court), where she served as chief judge until her retirement in 2002. From 2002 to 2008 she was the President of the Goethe Institut.
Hartmut Berghoff, Jutta Limbach In her lecture, Limbach provided a fascinating account and analysis of the difficulties involved in balancing two fundamental rights: the right to human dignity and the freedom of the press, both of which are explicitly enshrined in the German constitution (Grundgesetz). Limbach showed that the German constitutional court has considered human dignity "the supreme legal value" and has taken a rather expansive view of this right, establishing that man must be able to "freely develop his personality" and enjoy "freedom of spirit." Likewise, the court has adopted an expansive interpretation of freedom of the press. In its decision in the infamous "Spiegel Affair" of 1966, the court argued that "if the citizen is to make political decisions, then he must not only be comprehensively informed, but also be able to know and then balance the opinions that others have formed." Subsequent court decisions have established that politicians must tolerate press criticism to a very high degree on the principle that ignorant criticism must be tolerated so that valid criticism may flourish. While the court has ventured to protect privacy against press intrusion by deciding that the domestic sphere and "recognizable seclusion" are taboo for cameras, Limbach demonstrated that it has refused to limit the freedom of the press by drawing a distinction between "news" and "entertainment." Instead, the constitutional court has argued that entertainment, too, can "fulfill an important social function" by "convey[ing] images of reality and propos[ing] subjects for debate" and therefore deserves the full protection of the constitutional guarantees associated with the freedom of the press. The evening concluded with a lively question-and-answer session, during which Limbach addressed a wide range of questions, including several about the role of the constitutional court in Germany's political system.
The text of the lecture is not yet available, but will be published in the Spring 2009 issue of the Bulletin of the GHI.
Richard F. Wetzell